Last night I was treated to an advanced showing of a FamilySearch Discover Center—a new type of family history center. “The Family Discovery Center offers…families simple yet powerful in-person experiences to discover their heritage and have their hearts turned to their ancestors,” said Merrill White. White, a FamilySearch spokesperson, made the remarks at the FGS conference in 2013. (See “Über Cool Family History Center of the Future Shown at FGS 2013.”) This first Discovery Center is a test facility located in a room adjacent to the FamilySearch Center on the first floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. FamilySearch is testing and refining the concept here.
I visited the center with several other social media writers. The hope is that entire families will be their chief audience, although youth groups are welcome, too. Upon arrival, I was given (translate: loaned) an iPad with custom software and magnets for docking at various stations. The experience is designed to be personalized for each visitor. That personalization began with a prompt to login to my FamilySearch account and take a selfie. The iPad remembered as I visited each station, accumulating facts and photos to help me remember my visit.
Several stations have large touchscreen displays next to the docking station. At one station, the screens presented interesting, but generic facts about my given name, my surname, and my birth year.
Another station tapped into FamilySearch Family Tree to get information about my ancestors. This station was phenomenal. It showed migration patterns, percentages of national origin, photos, and stories. If you have a richly populated tree on Family Tree, this station is fantastic. Navigation was easy, for the most part, although two-hand gestures took me some getting used to. (And the software kept wanting to flip my head upside down. That might have been just me. Non-cartoon characters didn’t seem to have that problem.)
They called another station “the time machine.” The station projects on image of the inside of a 19th century home onto a large, curved screen. I brought up my fan chart on the large, starship worthy console and clicked on an ancestor. The image animated, showing year-by-year how the room would have looked, until it reached the birth year of my ancestor. (In the photo, below-left, the console obstructs half the screen. Sorry about that. To steady my hands, I had to rest the camera on the console.) I clicked on the photo count for my ancestor and the station projected them onto the big screen.
This station would be pretty cool if the operation was more intuitive and if it didn’t suffer from an unresponsive interface. It took me five minutes to stumble upon the best way to use the station. And I had a hard time getting it to reliably respond to my touches.
The period-costume photography booth was a hoot. The camera takes a picture of your face and superimposes it on a figure in period/cultural dress. The booth has but three walls, allowing your family to gawk and laugh at you as you put your face onto a gladiator, a Maori warrior, or a mariachi musician.
I didn’t try the personal or family video recording booths.
At the conclusion of the visit, we docked our iPads in front of a large tree. The station projected our facts and photos onto the tree.
(Oops. Paul, Pat, and Gordon: I forgot to ask. May I have permission to publish your photos? :-)
After I returned my iPad, the Discovery Center emailed those same images to my inbox.
I admit I was dubious when discovery centers were announced at FGS two years ago. It sounded really expensive to develop. Some of what they hoped to do didn’t seem feasible. For visitors without a tree, I thought the experience would be lame. I thought about the many museums I’d visited with broken technology. (I gather it is really costly to maintain exhibits based on technical gadgetry. In three or four years, the manufacturer has moved on to new things and you can’t get parts or support. After a few years, the gadgets break down so frequently, museum owners leave them to rot.) And I thought a visit would have little ability to spread the genealogy bug.
I was glad to see survey questions on the iPads, before and after our visit. FamilySearch appears intent on measuring the effect of these discovery centers to see if they are worth the expense. I don’t know if they will, but since a full-experience includes logging into your FamilySearch account, FamilySearch could compare your degree of involvement before and after the visit. They can see if the centers are increasing engagement in family history. I’m glad to see that FamilySearch isn’t rushing into this blindly.
I remember as a little boy, our cub scout pack got up very early and made the long trip to the big city. How the city folk must have gawked at a gaggle of little guys stumbling on and off escalators, having never seen one before in our entire lives! We visited a planetarium. With wonder and awe my eight year old eyes saw scientific gadgets and gizmos. That was a defining moment in my life. It determined my hobbies, my jobs, my merit badges, my school classes, my grades, my major, my degree, and my profession. Big doors swing on little hinges.
I still have my doubts, but I hope FamilySearch can make this work.
FamilySearch is officially announcing the centers at 2:00 pm this afternoon. For more information, visit familysearch.org/discoverycenter. For a two minute promo, see “FamilySearch Discovery Centers - Discover Your Story” on the FamilySearch YouTube channel.